Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The dramatic monologue is a literary form that really came of age in the 1830s, thanks to Tennyson and Browning most of all. Below, we’ve selected some of the greatest examples of the dramatic monologue: a poem spoken by a character (rather than the poet themselves) in a dramatic situation, whereby that character reveals their personality through their speech. There are some brilliant examples of dramatic monologues in English and American literature, so we hope you enjoy this pick of some of the best.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’. As well as writing some of the most famous love poetry of the Victorian era, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) also explored and tackled social issues in her poetry. In this poem, the first example of a dramatic monologue on this list, she writes in the character of a black female slave in the United States, on the run having endured a series of horrors: her lover has been murdered and she has been raped, and the baby that resulted was deemed ‘too white’ because of its mixed ethnicity. A tragic poem (we won’t give away the ending here though the stanzas below provide a clue), the poem is still a powerful indictment of the treatment of black slaves in nineteenth-century America. The poem was written to raise funds for the abolitionist cause.
Our wounds are different. Your white men
Are, after all, not gods indeed,
Nor able to make Christs again
Do good with bleeding. We who bleed . . .
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ulysses’.
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name …
Writers of dramatic monologues have often turned to mythical characters for their subjects and speakers, and this early Tennyson poem is such an example. A poem about growing old, but written when Tennyson was a young man in his early twenties, ‘Ulysses’ has been read as a response to the death of Tennyson’s friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who had died suddenly in 1833, in his early twenties. The poem takes the warrior Ulysses (the Roman name for Odysseus) as its focus, and reveals an ageing king who, having returned from the Trojan war, yearns to don his armour again and ride off in search of battle, glory, and adventure (leaving his poor wife Penelope behind, we might add!). Tennyson uses the dramatic monologue to stirring effect, but the dramatic situation also invites us to question Ulysses’ actions, and especially the impact they will have on his wife and son whom he leaves behind (again). Can Ulysses really sail off again in search of glory, or is he deluding himself?
Robert Browning, ‘Porphyria’s Lover’.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain …
Nobody took the dramatic monologue to such a dark place in the nineteenth century as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s husband, Robert Browning (1812-89). ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is spoken by a murderer who strangles his beautiful blonde upper-class lover with her own hair. It was one of Browning’s first great poems, published in 1836 (as ‘Porphyria’) when the poet was still in his mid-twenties. It was also one of his earliest experiments in the dramatic monologue. Despite the poem’s reputation as one of Browning’s finest dramatic monologues, it – like much of Browning’s early work – was largely ignored during his lifetime.
T. S. Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Written in around 1910 while Eliot was still in his early twenties, this poem is one of the most famous modernist examples of the dramatic monologue. Eliot is following French Symbolists like Jules Laforgue – who was fond of adopting personae or characters as the speakers of his poems – rather than Victorians like Tennyson and Browning, while the dramatic quality of Prufrock’s speech is drawn from the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists Eliot so revered. Prufrock, a middle-aged balding man who feels uncomfortable attending social gatherings while he ponders some ‘overwhelming question’, makes us laugh but also invites our pity and communal sympathy for his feeling of ‘not fitting in’.
H. D., ‘Eurydice’. Many of the greatest examples of dramatic monologues in the twentieth century were written by women. Although this is a dramatic monologue spoken by the wife of Orpheus – the musician from Greek mythology – like many of the poems of Hilda Doolittle or H. D. (1886-1961), the poem clearly had its origins in Doolittle’s own life. Written during the First World War when H. D. lost her brother and her marriage to Richard Aldington began to fail (their first child was also stillborn in 1915), ‘Eurydice’ is about the myth involving a woman sent to the Underworld. Orpheus travels to Hades to ask that Eurydice be returned to the land of the living, and Hades grants his wish, on condition that Orpheus doesn’t look back at his wife as they leave the Underworld. Orpheus can’t wait, and looks back at Eurydice before she’s clear of the Underworld, and as a result she is destined to remain in Hades forever. H. D. saw the feminist potential for such a story, and here gives Eurydice a voice, as she accuses her husband of thwarting her chances at life. ‘Dramatic’ in more ways than one!
Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Crusoe in England’. Writers of dramatic monologues haven’t just drawn on myth; sometimes they’ve taken their inspiration from existing literary characters. This dramatic monologue from the twentieth-century American poet Elizabeth Bishop imagines Robinson Crusoe looking back on his life, after he’s been rescued from his island and has returned to England as an older man. What does Defoe’s character have left, after his life of adventure and toil? The poem is an interesting example of a female poet taking on a male character’s persona and re-examining it: the Crusoe we encounter is altogether more ‘modern’ and introspective than the depiction in Defoe’s novel over two centuries before.
Judith Wright, ‘Eve to Her Daughters’. This dramatic monologue sees the Biblical Eve transported to a post-nuclear landscape where man has succeeded in destroying the Edenic paradise of the world as we know it. Wright manages to weave in anti-war sentiments, feminist ideas, and some clever Biblical jokes, as Eve addresses her daughters and maintains, ‘It was not I who began it.’
Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Medusa’. What would it be like to have the Gorgon Medusa’s powers, from Greek mythology – to be able to turn things to stone when they merely glance at you? Here we get a ginger cat transformed into a brick, a pig turned into a boulder, and much else – before Perseus, addressed by Medusa in the final stanzas, arrives with his cunning mirror-shield to deliver Medusa’s comeuppance. From Duffy’s collection The World’s Wife.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.